Geography Class
Mother Jones|November/December 2021
Photographer Matt Black’s epic work of “critical cartography”
By Mark Murrmann

WE’RE DRIVING toward Porterville, California, when Matt Black explains his attempt to escape geography. Black is a photographer, and Central Valley towns like this have long been the setting of his work, the people in them his subjects. Farmers and migrant workers. Droughts and heatwaves. It’s a corner of the country he felt needed attention, the breadbasket of America. It’s his home.

Place may have been at the heart of his photography, gritty and black-and-white images rooted strongly in a social documentary tradition, but by 2014 Black had come to realize that place could be a prison, too. The iconic depictions of the Central Valley—from The Grapes of Wrath to the photos of Dorothea Lange to the more recent work focusing on the lives of Latinx migrants—seemed to lock the region into a particular set of cultural meanings. The plight of the Central Valley was seen as a California problem, detached from the larger story of poverty in the United States.

In 2014, Black decided “to escape place and all the prejudices that go along with place.” He went looking for America’s other Central Valleys—regions throughout the United States with a poverty rate higher than 20 percent. “That was a very direct way of linking places,” he says. “At first, I thought of very obvious places. I’d never been to Appalachia, the Rust Belt, the Delta. There are these headline areas, the poster children. I wanted to look beyond that. Broadening out from there, discovering all these corners of the country. Southwest Georgia. North Maine. Parts of Wyoming. They are everywhere.”

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